There was sadness and a sense of what might have been, but tears were noticeably absent as the UAE quietly slipped out of the Beach Soccer World Cup following a spirited 3-1 defeat to Senegal on Tuesday night.
Mohammed Bashir's side knew they had to win to progress through Group C and into the quarter-finals for the first time in the country's history. They started with intent as captain Waleed Mohammed's overhead kick forced a smart save inside 10 seconds and Ali Karim struck the post minutes later. Yet despite enjoying close to 70 per cent possession in blustery conditions and rattling the upright a further two times, they never quite managed to sneak ahead.
"In this sport, the first team to score tends to win," Bader Hareb, head of the UAE delegation, told The National on the sidelines of the Los Pynandi World Cup Stadium in Asuncion. "We can have all the possession in the world, but if we don't score it is not important. I am happy with the performance, but obviously not with the result. We lost our discipline a little near the end, but on another day we would have won."
Indeed, despite appearing in control for much of the first two periods, they came undone when midfielder Hesham Muntaser missed a volley from a quick corner and Mamadou Sylla snuck in to fire the loose ball from distance past the outstretched Mohammed Al Jasmi. It was particularly hard on the Emirati goalkeeper, who had been excellent once more before going behind.
“We played well, but the ball just wouldn’t go in the net for us,” Al Jasmi said. “We had lots of possession and hit the post three or four times, so I think it is fair to say we did not have luck on our side. If one of those shots goes in, probably we win.”
As Bashir urged his players to push forward in search of an equaliser, Senegalese defender Ninou Diatty found himself in space from a throw-in and doubled the African champions’ lead with a fizzing volley that bounced wickedly in front of Al Jasmi. Two minutes later, Raoul Mendy — who plays his club football in Oman with Mirbat SC — showed determination to hold off two Emirati defenders before clipping a chipped shot into the goal.
“We knew it would be a hard game,” said Senegalese captain Al Seyne Ndiaye. “The UAE had a lot of the ball, but we never felt under too much pressure and knew we would get chances. They hit the post a few times, yes, but we did not panic and fortunately when our chances came we took them. Now we look forward to the quarter-finals.”
Veteran Ali Karim had pulled one back for the Emirates with six minutes to go, but even before Al Jasmi had to be replaced with a knee injury, there was a sense it was not the UAE’s day. As the referee blew for full time, there was no immediate outpouring of emotion: Captain Mohammed congratulated his opponents while substitute goalkeeper Humaid Jamal silently removed his gloves and headed down the tunnel.
“We are all disappointed, of course,” said Bashir, who refused to be drawn on his future at the helm. “But I think we were the better team for much of the game. Senegal waited and punished us at the end and if you don’t score when you are on top, it is always difficult to win games. We needed to be better in front of goal.”
A narrow defeat on the back of Sunday's historical victory over two-time champions Russia may be enough to ignore the opening day blip against debutants Belarus and ensure Bashir is afforded one more crack at leading his country on the global stage in 2021. Yet as he left the stadium on Tuesday night, he was visibly downcast, walking past his colleagues with his head down as they vehemently questioned Fifa officials over the yellow card defender Ahmed Beshr was shown for dissent.
The UAE players will likely have some familiar faces on their flight back to the Gulf after Oman were also eliminated, losing 3-1 to two-time world champions Portugal. “We lose, but we fought until the end against a very good and experienced team,” said Omani coach Talib Al Thanawi. “I am happy with our campaign. From a very difficult group, we leave with our heads held high.”